What is a Damp Squib?

Each Monday, I’m posting on my blog about a phrase or common saying, what they mean and how they came about.

I’m working through the alphabet and choosing one saying for each letter.

Have you ever watched a show on TV and heard someone describe it as a “damp squib?”

That’s what we’re looking at this week. What is a Damp Squib? And where did the expression come from?


A damp squib is something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations. It is an anti-climax, a disappointment, a let-down.


First a note on what it is not.

The common phrase is not a “damp squid.” A squid is a species of cephalopod which lives in the sea, and it is therefore normally damp.

In their natural environment squid are usually damp but that’s as near to this phrase as they are likely to get.

The saying is a damp squib.


What is a squib then?

Box of Chinese Squibs

A squib is a type of firework. It is cylindrical in shape and usually sold in boxes or packets. Although it resembles a tiny stick of dynamite, it is nothing like as explosive. The paper fuse at one end causes a mild explosion when it burns up.

Like all fireworks it needs to be dry. If you light the blue paper fuse and dash back to safety only to see the squib fizzle out with a “phut,” you know the disappointment of a damp squib.

Another meaning

In the 16th century a “squib” was also a short, sharp literary composition of a sarcastic nature. This phrase was first seen in print in 1520, the same year as the “firework” squib, and it’s not clear which came first.

13 comments on “What is a Damp Squib?

  1. Hi Shirley what an interesting post. At first I thought it was a damp squid until I read further through. Shows how you need to concentrate when reading something! I haven’t heard of this saying before and like to pride myself on knowing quite a few old sayings – so you have taught me something new this week! Thanks for the series and have a great week! x

  2. Ahhh….I’ve just learnt a new way to describe something that doesn’t meet my expectation….damp squib in the vocabulary bag

    • Yes, not an uncommon expression, but I have also heard people talk of something as a damp squid. Never realised how funny that was until now!

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